- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

Dame Helen Mirren may have a regal air about her. And she may have played some of history’s greatest royals — both real and imagined. But don’t typecast the British actress.

“I’d like to point out I haven’t just played queens,” she says quickly on being asked about some of her most famous roles.

Of course not. Miss Mirren is probably best known as the tough-talking Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison on TV’s “Prime Suspect.” She’s also played a servant (in 2001’s “Gosford Park”), a contract killer (2006’s “Shadowboxer”) and a teacher (1999’s “Teaching Mrs. Tingle”).

But she is the only actress to play both Queen Elizabeths. She played the first in her Emmy-winning turn in HBO’s 2005 miniseries, “Elizabeth I.” She plays the second in “The Queen,” a film about the royal family’s response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, which premiered Tuesday and opens in general release today. She’s played other monarchs, too, including Queen Charlotte in 1994’s “The Madness of King George.”

Being the go-to actress for classy and dignified can’t be all bad. Miss Mirren admits, “I think if I was going to be typecast as anything, I wouldn’t mind being typecast as queens.”

“The Queen” marks the first time she plays a reigning monarch.

“I didn’t talk to anyone who knew her because I didn’t know anyone who knew her. Those people are extremely protected,” she says of her research, which consisted mostly of tapes and books. “I have to say, with the queen, it seems that anyone who knew her had very little criticism of her, considering how critical other people are about her. That’s including people who had no particular reason to be sycophantic. We reflect that in the film, with the relationship Tony Blair has with her.”

Still, she reveals, playing a living queen was “intimidating and frightening and challenging; within its own little world, kind of dangerous.”

Never mind that her portrayal would be closely watched by the most powerful people in Britain. How many actresses would hide such earthy sex appeal behind white wigs and dowdy clothes?

“I’m of an age that that sort of thing, I let go of a long time ago,” says the 61-year-old actress, who looks much younger. “However, you don’t often get to play someone with as high a profile and quite as little personal vanity as the queen has. I think that’s a very important part of her psychology.”

It’s commonplace in Hollywood that the good roles for women disappear after a certain age — Miss Mirren puts it at “35, maybe 45.” But that, she thinks, is finally changing.

“Obviously the ‘40s was a very golden era in film. It went all pear-shaped in the ‘50s and ‘60s and through the ‘70s and ‘80s,” she says, adding that there were “incredible” roles for women during the 1940s. “Women were an economic force in the cinema because they’re the ones who drove the cinema audience in the ‘40s. It’s all down to money, isn’t it?”

Women are quickly becoming that driving force again, the actress believes. “Condoleezza Rice, the most powerful woman in America, is a young black woman. We had Margaret Thatcher. The thing with the head of Hewlett Packard, it’s a woman (Patricia Dunn recently resigned),” she says. “We have women in positions of power and economic strength. And we’ll inevitably see that reflected in drama.”

Miss Mirren started her career four decades ago on the fabled stages of London’s Old Vic Theatre. But she has thoughts on how the availability of films through the Internet and other new distribution channels might change her field.

“What will change is the delivery system of movies,” she muses. “After that age of 25, a lot of women have a baby, they can’t go out on a Saturday night, Friday night. But if the delivery system is changed, then maybe women again will become a strong economic force in the buying of films.”

Miss Mirren and her husband, American director Taylor Hackford (“Ray”) split their time between London and Los Angeles. She spends more time in London these days, but it used to be the other way around.

“I would say I live in Los Angeles and work in England,” she says of the old times. “It was great because I have a different profile in the two countries. I’d always forget what my profile was in the other country.” She says each new role brings her a new audience, whether it’s the American success of the British series “Prime Suspect” or the theater work she’s done in New York.

“It’s the nature of my job, to be a rogue and a vagabond,” she says.

That’s not likely to change any time soon. The current, seventh season of “Prime Suspect” will be the series’ last. But Miss Mirren says she has no plans yet to fill the void.

“My future’s an open book, which is quite exciting, really.”

But then the career of Dame Helen Mirren has never been anything but.

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